Burmese electorate on the horns of a dilemma

6 November 2010

Burmese electorate on the horns of a dilemma

The inhabitants of Burma will tomorrow have the chance to vote in an election for the first time in twenty years. The question is not who they will vote for but rather whether they will vote at all. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a boycott, while other politicians in Burma see the elections as a chance for democratisation. Europe must, whatever happens, do what it can to support the democratisation movement.

By Harry van Bommel, Member of Parliament for the SP

The situation in Burma has been for many decades characterised by an extreme lack of freedom. Following independence in 1948, in 1962 a military dictatorship came to power and in 1974 the country became a one-party state. In the first free elections, in 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi emerged winners but the result was not recognised by the military and the NLD leader was placed under house arrest. Since then there have been no more elections in the country, which has become ever more isolated. Almost 2200 people are currently in prison for political reasons.

The international community has since the 1990s wrestled with the question of how the democratisation of Burma can best be supported. The European Union has imposed economic sanctions designed to prevent the government in Rangoon from holding on to power. A number of Dutch firms in the oil, wood, travel and dredging sectors have complied with this and ceased their economic activities in Burma. Yet a boycott would only make sense if China and India could be persuaded to participate. The EU has consulted with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) over this and fortunately succeeded in increasing pressure on Burma in this way. UN sanctions have sadly not been possible, because China remains opposed.

Sunday's elections form an important test case for the regime in Rangoon. Will the thirty-seven opposition parties which are participating have a real chance, or will the results be subject to large-scale falsification? International observers have not been admitted into Burma, but participating political parties will be allowed to supervise polling stations. Will they really be able to observe the elections in a credible fashion? The most important question is, however, whether the call from Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD will result in a mass boycott. A successful boycott could put the credibility of the elections in question; on the other hand, it could take the opposition out of the game completely. That is the dilemma.

From the free West we should, in any case, do what we can for the oppressed people of Burma. We must continue to exert pressure for UN sanctions in the form of a weapons embargo, as well as visa limitations and the freezing of financial assets for members of the regime and a ban on trade in raw materials from those sectors from which the Burmese regime takes its income. There can be no question of relaxation when it comes to the freeing of political prisoners and respect for human rights such as freedom of expression and of the press. The call from Human Rights Watch to the UN for the establishment of an international commission of enquiry into human rights abuses in Burma also deserves full support.

The Netherlands can argue for such demands at European level, and could do still more than that. Via the Human Rights Fund, projects which benefit the democratic forces in Burma could be given more generous financial backing. Support for those who defend human rights and for organisations which offer help to former political prisoners is of great importance. In the areas of election training for political activists and of media diversity there is in the Netherlands a great deal of expertise which could be put to good use. The possibility of contributing to the democratisation of Burma from within the Netherlands are limited. The Burmese, however, draw hope from every effort that we make on their behalf. So it is to be hoped that the new Dutch government will ensure that its proposals for spending cuts will leave these small-scale but important projects alone.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in Dutch in the national daily Trouw of 6th November 2010.

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